Thursday, December 6, 2012

In Medias Res

You see what I mean, confusing isn't it? And how does one remember which is which?

The real beginning of this blog starts here.

I've just begun this blog with a couple of sentences which should really be placed in the middle of this article. As a result, my opening didn't make a lot of sense to you, did it? Despite that, authors are constantly using this device to try to make the initial snippet of their books more exciting than they would otherwise be.

Capture the eye of the browsing buyer and it does wonders for your sales figures. Fact.

In Medias Res means 'in the middle of things' and, in literary terms, it's the transplanting of a section of text from the middle (where it belongs) to the beginning in order to make the book look particularly exciting/interesting etc.

Yes, in medias res is a proven technique and, yes, it can work. However, it can also backfire on the author. I'd like to look at a few types of case where the use of this device can really fail to deliver.


Long before package holidays, electronic communications and Google Earth came on the scene, the notion of traveling to exotic or mysterious places was a surefire way of getting a reader interested. It was a popular technique in many genres but particularly effective with spy and crime stories. For the reader, this was ‘good stuff’ and the pages of such a book would be as near as they could ever hope to come to visiting such far-off destinations. Nowadays it's 'yeah, been there, done that' so the act of flitting from one location to another just to spice up a book's opening only serves to disorientate.


Another favorite opening involves completely baffling the reader with science (often of a highly spurious nature). Typically, the opening describes a complex process which is well underway in order to grab the reader's attention. This is a popular way of beginning horror stories (everything from traditional Gothic to modern vampire and zombie tales). Unfortunately it can easily become so technical that the only message which is conveyed is that the book’s too hard to follow.


One of my bĂȘte noires if ever there was. A number of characters (whom you don't know, of course) are discussing something in a particularly vague manner and, after a few pages, they are suddenly phased out in favor of more unknown characters whom you do get to know. You then follow these new characters until you catch up with the mysterious ones who appeared in the opening scene. This type of start is popular across just about all genres and it's invariably pretty dire to read. Who is this person? Who/what are they talking about? What's going on? Pass me another book ...

I'm well aware that in medias res can work so I'm not knocking it per se, I'm just saying that it's a dangerous weapon to wield so use it wisely.

Think not just of grabbing the reader's attention, but also of keeping it. With Amazon, it's so easy to return Kindle books and, if your opening is confusing or unrepresentative of what follows, you'll find the ratio of these returns to actual ‘bought and kept’ sales rising dangerously. Enough of these and you risk having the book or even your account suspended.

When you're creating the opening, think of the overall reader experience from the first few lines to the end of about chapter 3. A good rule of thumb is to use Amazon's 'Look Within' guide. Everything that you can see constitutes 'the opening' and it has to sell the rest of the book to the reader.

It's two of the big advantages of the electronic publishing age. From the author's point of view, moving great chunks of text around is a simple job. From the reader's point of view, a full refund for a purchase that didn't live up to expectation is just a click away - no shop assistant to convince about a creased cover, no having to remember to take it with you when you go near the bookshop.

So, next time you 'jump into the thick of things', think carefully about what it is you're jumping into and how and where you should jump.


  1. Clive, as always, you so got it right with this post. As writers, publishers, agents and other authors are always encouraging us to jump in with the action right away, but that can be tricky. Good post!

  2. Nice post! I think one of the problems in this case is structure. To make In Medias Res work, it should be obvious that it is exactly what you are doing. Mystery probably does this better than any other genre, starting with a scene where you don't know anyone, then moving to another scene where you don't know anyone. But because you understand the genre, it is exactly what you are expecting.

    When In Medias Res fails is often when the writer is, in effect, tricking the reader, making them think they are somewhere doing something that they are not, only to fool them. While it sounds good, it usually backfires. For the writer it works because he already knows the story. But the reader doesn't know the story so she just gets annoyed and goes somewhere else.

  3. Thank you John and Mary Ann - you've summed up my feelings on the matter very well.

    It's a very attractive device (which is why it is overused) but it's also a one-shot gun. You know; it can hit the target, blow up in your face, shoot you in the foot, misfire etc.

    Given how easy it is to 'go elsewhere', authors tempted to use 'in medias res' should think very carefully before doing so.

    The consequences of getting it wrong can be far-reaching.

  4. It reminds me of the technique, reductio ad impossibilem, or Proof by Contradiction. When you learn it in analysis it is so elegant you start trying to solve every proof that way. You quickly learn that it only works on certain kinds of problems. I guess those lofty latin mechanisms are like that.

  5. Quad erat demonstrandum et non solum sed etiam a pseud might say!

  6. You took the words right out of my brain.